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Cambodia only for the Khmer?

John C. Brown argues against citizenship based on



ho are the citizens of Cambodia? An un-thinking answer is

that Cambodian citizens are the people of the Khmer race who live in Cambodia.

There are several countries where strong connections between ethnicity and

citizenship underlie government policy. But opinion, in the west at least, has

moved away from making explicit connections between citizenship and ethnicity.

This move is generally defended on human rights grounds, but there are also

pragmatic reasons to defend the move. These can be illustrated by the experience

of countries who have made explicit the connection between ethnicity and


A draft law on immigration was adopted by the Cabinet of

Ministers on May 20, the government news agency AKP reported. One of the issues

some hope the law will address is citizenship. However the report gave no

indication of whether ethnic Vietnamese and other minorities living in Cambodia

would be granted full citizenship and enjoy the same rights as Khmers. Ministry

of Interior sources said in earlier reports that the bill skirted round the

controversy of defining nationality.

The National Assembly will resume

deliberation on June 6, but there is as yet no indication if the immigration law

will be debated.

According to the Constitution, citizenship is to be

defined by law. In the Constitution, Citizenship appears to be defined

ethnically. When political rights are specified, the Constitution says plainly

Khmer citizens have the rights specified. This leads naturally to the conclusion

that only the ethnic Khmer are citizens, and thus that citizenship is ethnically

defined. This interpretation excludes the Chinese, the highland Khmer and the

Cham. It also places any ethnic Vietnamese into a second class status, if not a

fully illegal one, even if they have lived in Cambodia for generations, as some

most certainly have.

But the experience of other countries indicates that

defining citizenship in terms of ethnicity can lead to problems with human


But the trend in international politics is to define certain

rights in human, rather than legal terms. Of course political rights, like the

right to vote, are rights that only citizens can have. But there are other

rights, like the right to life, that all humans share, independent of their

citizenship and their ethnicity. Defining citizenship in terms of ethnicity

creates a political caste system in which some ethnic groups will always remain


Israel, Germany and Japan have defined citizenship in

terms of ethnicity. All are grappling with the problems that have resulted.

Israel's problems with the Palestinians need no elaboration. In Germany

nationalist violence has been increasing since unification. In Japan there are

deep difficulties with ethnic Koreans who have lived and worked in Japan for as

long as four generations but who are still denied citizenship. In all of these

countries the roots of the problems being faced are the connection between

citizenship and ethnicity.

In Germany citizenship was defined by

ethnicity in the 1949, post World War II Constitution. Germany is now a country

with six and a half million foreigners. None are immigrants. Most are guest

workers, or asylum seekers. One cannot legally emigrate to Germany. Millions of

guest workers were brought in during the 1960's to an economically resurgent

Germany. The children of these workers, born in Germany, schooled and socialized

in Germany differ from their German school mates in one important way, they are

not ethnic Germans, and under current law will never be eligible for

citizenship. They are second class citizens and treated that way. In contrast,

anyone who can show that they have German blood can claim citizenship, even if

their family has lived in Volga Russia for generations and speak no


In the current economic dislocations of German unification,

guest-workers and their children became easy targets for a dissatisfied and

resurgent nationalism that was racist and in some cases,


Certainly the attitudes and actions of the hate groups in

Germany did not originate from the government, but the government shares

responsibility for their resurgence, in part by failing to create the legal

conditions by which some of these people could attain citizenship. By pursuing

policies that are interpreted as "Germany for the Germans", the German

government has partially legitimized the actions of anti-ethnic hate


In Japan, Koreans were allowed to immigrate under Imperial policy

in the 1930s, but are still treated as second class citizens in the 1990s. It is

almost impossible for them to become full citizens. Small numbers of Koreans,

who change their family name and who deny all of their culture, are allowed to

become full citizens. The practical effect of Japanese citizenship policy is to

alienate Koreans from their own culture, to destroy their roots. It is said that

home visits are required as part of the application procedure, any evidence of

Korean culture can be the basis for the denial of citizenship. In reaction to

laws that seem meant to ensure that "Japan is only for the Japanese," young

Koreans in Japan have begun to emphasize their ethnicity, and Japan will face

the problems that this has created.

Like Japan and Germany, Cambodia's

current situation is a partial product of war. Like Japan and Germany, Cambodia

must face the potentialities rooted in its own past. Unlike Germany and Japan,

Cambodia cannot afford the "luxury" of ethnic intolerance racial


To solve Cambodia's many problems, the help and money of the

international community will be needed, and the efforts of all of Cambodia's

peoples will be required. Fights over human rights issues - like the connection

between citizenship and ethnicity or the treatment of immigrants - will hurt all

Cambodians no matter what their ethnicity.

The Royal Government can

choose to say to the Cambodian people, and to the international community, that

the human rights of everyone in Cambodia will be protected. By avoiding

ethnicity as a criteria for citizenship, the protection of the law canbe

explicitly extended to all humans in Cambodia.

Of course having

citizenship laws that ignore ethnicity will not by itself solve the problems of

racism and the violation of human rights. But it is the indispensable first

step. In the United States, most citizens are immigrants or the children of

immigrants. The US prides itself and defines itself in terms of ethnic

heterogeneity. This American self-understanding is codified in law. Citizenship

is no longer defined by race. After a civil war and years of unpleasantness, all

American citizens in principle and by law have the same rights, however extreme

their differences in race, religion, or ethnicity. But this has not made America

a tolerant nation. There are still sharp and destructive racial


But US law stipulates standards against which the the behavior

of the state and the behavior of its citizens can be judged and in light of

which unacceptable behavior can be avoided or punished.

If pursuing

policies of ethnic equality were easy, the question would not have to be raised.

One difficult problem is that sentiments like "Cambodia for the Khmer" are

shared in the government and among citizens, not only in Cambodia, but also in

Israel, Japan, Germany and to some extent, the US.

There are only two

solutions, education, and strong moral leadership from the government. Cambodia

must follow the example of other nations whose laws, however imperfect in

execution, show that human rights do not depend on ethnicity.



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